Honest Inquiry Interview: Jean-Pierre Lehmann (Part 2 of 2): Global Awareness

The Honest Inquiry Interview Series: A conversation with Jean-Pierre Lehmann

Part Two – On Global Awareness

You’ve talked to participants on our leadership programmes about the importance of global awareness and understanding other cultures as an essential aspect of being an effective business leader. Could you share your thoughts on the same with our readers?

It depends on your time-horizon. If you want to make a short-term opportunistic killing in a particular market – say quickly acquiring assets and then splitting them up for lucrative scale – global awareness and understanding are not necessary. In fact, they may get in the way!

If, however, you see a business not just as a short-term profit-making operation, but as a living organism composed of and dealing with human beings, it is vital to understand societies, to be able to empathise with what drives people in a particular region when they get up in the morning, and thereby to enrich not only your bottom line, but your culture and humanity. This requires, inter alia, mixing and socialising with the local populations.

I am often dispirited to see how expatriates hang together and develop few really genuine relationships outside their circle. The expat executive in Vietnam, for example, should study Vietnamese history, read Vietnamese novels (in translation if need be), meet Vietnamese people from different professional backgrounds, travel around the country, attend festivals. In other words, whether the expat in Vietnam is a Japanese, a Belgian or a Canadian, during her/his period in Vietnam, s/he should be a good “Vietnamese citizen”.

Celebrating the Lunar New Year, "Tet" in Vietnam

What are the three global shifts you believe will have the biggest impact on the business landscape in the 21st century?

The three global shifts that will have the biggest impact on the business landscape in the 21st century are...

  • demographics,
  • demographics and
  • demographics!

There are of course other fundamental shifts, including geopolitical, environmental and digital, but the thread that is intimately linked to all of them are the radical unprecedented demographic transformations. These include, but are not limited to, the global geographical distribution of population basically between a rapidly ageing north and a population-booming south.

To cite only two examples: in 1950 Africa accounted for less than 9% of world population, by 2050 it will be 20%; the corresponding figures for Europe are 22% and 7%. This has immense implications in every respect. Thus, while another major shift is digitalisation and robotisation, the implications for demographics, in particular the creation of employment, are enormous.

Urbanisation: in 1950, approximately 20% of the world population was urban and 80% rural. Since 2005, the global urban population has surpassed the global rural population. By 2050, it should be about 75% urban.

Along with these developments, there has been the stupendous rise of a newly emerging middle-income group, especially, but not exclusively in Asia. Twenty years ago the number of overseas Chinese tourists were very few and very far between. Last year they were 150 million! Chinese tourists are the biggest spenders in France – as well as being by quite far the biggest market for Bordeaux wines and cognac!

The indicators above are few among many, many demographic shifts. As noted in the rich countries (including Hong Kong), ageing is the most pronounced feature: since the beginning of this century sales of incontinent towels in Japan surpass, by more and more every year, the sales of nappies. Needless to say, there are also huge resource (especially food and water) implications arising from demographic shifts.

Paris is a favourite destination for Chinese world travelers

What can business leaders do to prepare for the challenges and opportunities that will accompany these changes?

There are some fantastic visionary globally-oriented socially-minded business leaders out there. Generally, however, it has to be said that there is far too much short-termism and parochialism. In his splendid report, "Thinking the Unthinkable," Nik Gowing wrote that virtually all business and political leaders admitted (confidentially!) that they did not have the foggiest notion of where the world was heading. This is partly because they have been nurtured by soothing jargon-full highly oversimplified formulas of “The World is Flat” variety.

There is an imperative for in-depth assessment of the global driving forces and the events, issues, and developments to look out for while identifying potential black swans. When I was young (!!) I had the formidable privilege of working with Pierre Wack, the man who founded the scenario planning methodology at Royal Dutch Shell. It was inaugurated after the first 1973-oil “crisis” which caught the Shells, BPs, Totals, Chevron, Esso, Mobile, etc, with their proverbial analytical pants down. In developing narratives, Wack incessantly posed the “what if?” question. He strongly warned against extrapolation. This is still what far too many banks and “think” tanks do.

The whole world economy and many sectors specifically are today highly dependent on the Chinese locomotive. Corporate leaders who are not engaged in scenario planning with special attention to China are being irresponsible.

An embargo by OPEC in retaliation for US support of Israel led to the 1973 oil crisis

You’ve travelled extensively for your work including many visits to countries that are often misrepresented in the western media – China, Pakistan, Iran and Bangladesh to name a few. How has your first-hand experience of these countries changed your view of the world?

Among the many countries I have travelled in the world throughout my life (I first travelled long distance from France to Japan when I was five in 1950) there are only two countries that I did not like and in which I felt uncomfortable. There are some I have not been to, but know a priori I would not like and would feel uncomfortable, so I do not go. Top of that short list, as a committed feminist, is Saudi Arabia.

Otherwise, I would stress that while there are odious regimes, I have not come across odious populations/people. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s I frequently travelled across the Soviet Union. The regime sucked, but the Russian people I came across were warm and hospitable.

More recently, I have had a similar experience in Iran. The people and their attitudes to me at least were really warm and positive. As a Westerner (which I am), I always feel it is also very important to put things in historical perspectives. We (the West) have had some pretty awful regimes and some pretty awful practices. When I first went to the US in 1960, I was profoundly shocked by the discrimination against blacks. Britain and France may claim they represent western “values” of freedom and human justice, though there was not much evidence of either in the territories they occupied in Africa and Asia. To come back to Iran, had there not been the CIA plotted coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh – in whose place the highly unpopular dictatorial Shah was imposed – it is very possible that the ayatollahs would not be ruling in Tehran today.

One has to avoid passing judgement and condemning. Of course, not to condemn does not mean necessarily to condone. The nature of the Myanmar government may be in part the legacy of the British empire, but no one can possibly condone the Buddhist fundamentalist persecution of the Muslim Rohingyas minority. Rather than a priori deplore, it is better to explore with humility and perspective. Having been to Iran, I would never refer to Iranians as an “evil empire”; That is one of the many differences between me and George W Bush!

 
 

Historical scenes from Iran 1953 and Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh

Not everyone has the opportunity to travel the world so extensively. What are some effective strategies business leaders can employ to proactively broaden their knowledge of global issues that don’t involve getting on a plane?

The great, indeed truly outstanding translator of classical Chinese and Japanese literature Arthur Waley, who wrote mainly in the interwar years, never actually went to either Japan or China. Though he literally adored the literature and the culture, he despised the regimes – the dictator Chiang Kai-shek in China and Emperor Hirohito in Japan. That was of course exceptional.

Today millions think they are travelling, but are not really; in other words they bring with them their prejudices, stereotypes, and ignorance, not to mention their devices. If I could rule the planet (!) I would order that all who go to a particular destination should be forced to pass one of my “literacy tests”.

OK, you want to go to China, first a few questions:

  • When (approximately) did Confucius live?
  • When was China first unified and when was the great wall built?
  • What did Li Bo and Du Fu do?
  • Who was Zheng He?
  • In 1860 what famous edifice was sacked in Beijing and by whom?
  • Which country invaded Tibet in 1904, etc, etc,

Perhaps the last question... who or what is SHN48?

Out of some 20 questions covering history, politics, literature, etc, those who get less than 50% would not be allowed to travel to their desired destination without submitting to another exam.

But generally, my advice is to go.

Nothing can replace an actual well prepared visit. Of course there are those who for various reasons (medical, financial, judicial) cannot travel. Then they should read, watch documentaries, listen to those who do travel and have interesting things to say. After all, the origins of the publication of Marco Polo’s travels come from the time he spent in prison in Genoa and regaled his cellmates with his magnificent stories; they were taken down by the romancer Rustichello of Pisa who put plume to paper.

Marco Polo dictating his memoirs from his prison cell in Genoa

You founded the Evian Group in 1995 to promote a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable market economy. In the 20 years since you and your colleagues first articulated this mission do you think we’ve moved closer or further away from this goal?

In many respects, yes, the world economy is far more inclusive, equitable and sustainable than it was about a quarter-of-a-century ago. Citizens of the erstwhile Soviet dominated “Second World” have been liberated and can now participate in the global market economy, including through travelling. The same applies with the massive poverty reduction in the erstwhile “Third World.”

The world is more equitable and inclusive than it was, without a doubt. (Though I am not claiming credit for the Evian Group!) Recent developments – that bombastic disaster Trump notwithstanding – also provide some glimmer of hope for it being more sustainable. Developments in China especially have been impressive.

The 17 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) are comprehensive and inspiring. Comparing COP 15 (Copenhagen) with COP 21 (Paris) tells an encouraging tale of greater awareness and willingness to tackle climate change. So trends are encouraging, albeit with a small “e”. There are many daunting challenges ahead and we are by no means close to our destination.

This is why the work of GIFT is so important and also why, after a period of hibernation, I decided to re-launch the Evian Group and to give it a much greater focus on sustainability. So we can be encouraged, not discouraged, but if we become complacent, we are heading for Armageddon!

You’re a big fan of the ASEAN bloc, which also happens to be where many participants on our leadership programmes hail from and where the majority of our field projects take place. China’s “One Belt One Road” is already making waves in the region - how do you think China’s grand scheme is going to impact ASEAN in the long run?

My first major (over a few months) trip to Southeast Asia was in 1967. I have calculated I was almost certainly in Bangkok on August 8th 1967 when the Bangkok ASEAN Declaration was made. Though this is with the benefit of hindsight. I am pretty sure I was not aware of it at the time. In the mid/late sixties, Southeast Asia was a poor, backward, war-torn, unstable area that no sensible investor – unless s/he was in drugs or arms – would touch with a barge pole. ASEAN was not to be taken very seriously in view of it's being arguably at the time the planet’s worse hell-hole.

With Richard Nixon’s totally unexpected visit to Mao in Beijing in 1972, followed by the US being expelled from Vietnam, the winds began to change – even though there were still severe storms ahead, notably the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. The American “justification” for the war waged against the Vietnamese people was the so-called “domino theory”: ie if the Vietnamese domino “falls” to communism, as with dominos so will Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, etc, etc, etc across the planet. As David Halberstram brilliantly demonstrated in his 1972 book “The Best and the Brightest” the American war in Vietnam was based on a colossal combination of ignorance and arrogance. Also very much worth reading to get a good sense of the “culture” of the Vietnam war is the much more recent (2016) publication by Viet Thanh Nguyen, “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the History of War”.

 
 

In any case, what began occurring in the course of the 1980s was what might be termed a “reverse domino theory”. One-by-one Southeast Asian countries undertook market-oriented reforms and joined the world economy, initially as producers, but also as consumers. As implicit in the title of Kishore Mahbubani’s latest book, “The ASEAN Miracle” bearing in mind the hell-hole the region came from, there is something “miraculous” of where it got to. If more regions of the world, especially Central and West Asia could emulate the ASEAN narrative, the world would be an infinitely better place.

There is, of course, still poverty and injustice in ASEAN countries, the politics are a bit ropey, and territorial tensions continue to divide some of the countries. So there is still a ways to go for improvement. And there are geopolitical challenges ahead. Kishore Mahbubani makes the point that one of the most favourable factors in the emergence of ASEAN was that following Nixon’s historic visit and in light of the tension of US-USSR relations during some of the frostier moments of the Cold War, in Southeast Asia the US and China sought collaboration rather than confrontation. That is changing.

Nixon dines with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, 1972

Indeed the geopolitical paradigm of this half at least of the 21st century would seem to be increasingly dominated by US-China rivalry, including in the South China Sea. The Chinese are seeking to assert their version of the Monroe Doctrine (according to which the US claimed a monopoly of power and influence in the Caribbean) in the South China Sea. Managing this rivalry without becoming engulfed by one or the other will be the greatest challenge of the ASEAN countries now and in the years ahead. One Belt One Road may be the proper vehicle in which to do so, though this is a bit too early to judge now.

Aside from China, probably the biggest and most urgent challenge is to embed ASEAN more into the individual ASEAN societies. At the moment, ASEAN is an elite project, meaningful to political leaders and some business leaders but otherwise only dimly recognised by the people at large. If it is to survive and thrive the next fifty years, ASEAN will have to gain widespread popular recognition, respect and attachment.


THANK YOU to Professor Jean-Pierre Lehmann for his insightful and inspiring contribution!

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